Pioneer Press's Angel of Death | Bleader

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pioneer Press's Angel of Death

Posted By on 02.15.11 at 08:30 AM

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David Pollard
  • David Pollard
The Pioneer Press headquarters are in the Glenview office, so that's where most of the layoffs take place. Lynne Stiefel, the Pioneer Press reporter who's also president of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, works in Glenview, and when she sees a guild member on the premises who doesn't normally show up there, she fears the worst. So she slides over, says hello, and finds out what's up. Despite all the layoffs at Pioneer the past few months, she says, sometimes guild members "do come back to the mother ship for like real work."

There's one gallant reporter from another Pioneer Press office whose first stop is always at Stiefel's desk to tell her, "It's OK. I'm all right."

The latest wave of layoffs at Pioneer Press was last month and it came as no surprise — except, perhaps, to those who thought they'd lose their jobs just before Christmas. I mention one of the ousted journalists in my most recent column — as Pat Butler tells the story, if there was anything graceful about the way he was let go it could only have the decision to give him the bad news January 13 in Oak Park, his home office, rather than making him drive to Glenview. Butler said he needed to go to his locker to collect things — like his coat. "They told me I'd have to make an appointment to pick up my stuff — there would have to be an editor present. I said, 'Can we do it now?' They said, no, you must come back later. I said, 'I think I'll do it now. I'm 30 pounds heavier and a foot taller than you two guys [the top editor and the HR guy], so I don't think you'll stop me.' It was probably 25 degrees out there. I wasn't going to go outside and get pneumonia."

The fourth person present was David Pollard, a reporter who chairs the Pioneer Press unit of the Newspaper Guild. According to Butler, the management guys said Pollard was there to look out for his interests, and Butler snapped back, "'I'm glad somebody is looking out for my interests because you guys sure aren't.' Needless to say, I was pissed."

Says Pollard about these meetings, "A lot of people are very angry and a lot of people shed some tears." There actually isn't much Pollard can do at them. He can make sure i's are dotted and t's crossed, but he can't get management to change its mind. But when the January wave of layoffs finally subsided, he wrote a cri de coeur and emailed it to the guild membership. Here's a shortened version:

I must say that the past two days have been the worst I've ever experienced as unit chair.

On Wednesday six employees covered under our union contract were let go. Today (Thursday) three were let go. The tears, the hopelessness, the shock and the anger on their faces when they got the news was tough to take. It was unsettling and this evening at 7 p.m.when I pulled out of the company parking lot in Glenview I felt drained emotionally, empty inside and discouraged.

The only small consolation is that an employee decided to retire so that another person, who had been previously laid off Wednesday, could come back to work. Still, that is bittersweet.

With all the nine layoffs counted in, we are down to 59 editorial employees (covered by Guild). We're down to 25 reporters. It will be 60 when the one laid off employee returns to work.

Management says this is it in terms of layoffs, but that was said to me during the first go-round so after this it's not something I would bank on anymore.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, we should work hard to shake off the depressed attitude and see what's really going on. The company has money, it just doesn't want to spend it on us. They've had some promotions in upper management (You all got the memos) and I'm sure they are getting paid what they're worth.

As journalists we cover stories everyday where people are getting taken advantage of by politicians, business owners and they reach out to us for help. We attend meetings and can see through the veil of their sweet words, earnest promises and innocent looks after the damage has been done.

A change is a coming and the bottom line is the only thing that matters to management. So, I had my head down for a while, but I didn't keep it there for long. As long as we are a Guild we still have a voice, we still have strength and we should use it until we cannot use it anymore.

I thought of this motto as I drove home today and it gave me some light at the end of the tunnel of depression I was in. It was used by one of my sports heroes and as a result of his accomplishments on the football field he definitely held true to it.

"Never die easy!"
"I took that as a motto for my game and my life. Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make the linebacker pay. Make him earn your death."
-Walter Payton #34 Chicago Bears

So, we may be down, but we are not out. We have to go forward. Those who now have to move on without Pioneer, I believe, would want us to keep pushing.

Stay within your 37.5 hours, especially now with more to do. If they want it they'll pay you extra to make it happen. If you know someone who isn't in the Guild let them know that it's better to show the company that we are united instead of just resting on the contract while others do the work. Nothing in life is free...

Of those 59 guild-covered employees, about 20 don't pay guild dues, Pioneer Press being an open shop. That's what Pollard meant by "resting on the contract."

Stieffel says that in January of 2009, Pioneer Press had 113 guild-covered employees. The number's gone up and down over the years, but since October of 2009, when financier James Tyree took over the parent Sun-Times Media, it's gone down.

Pollard's memo has the ring of a pep talk given by Robert E. Lee between the burning of Atlanta and Appomattox. Stieffel tells me, "David writes very nice memos. David got fired eight times in two days in essence. He’s heartsick. He’s hung in there. He’s a guild guy. Hes a guild guy, he really is. He believes in this stuff, and despite getting battered and beaten he still manages to find some good things to say."

The difference between Pollard's count of nine layoffs and Stieffel's eight is explained by that piece of good news — an editorial assistant decided to retire, and as a result one person got her job back.

By Pollard's reckoning, and Stieffel's, he's the only African-American male reporter at Pioneer Press. He doesn't work out of Glenview either, and he feels doubly noticed whenever he shows up there — because of his race and because of his frequent mission. "Maybe I'm the harbinger of death," he says.

Does he wonder when it will be his turn?

"Yes," says Pollard.

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